Ben Long

ANSTO chief honoured for contribution to Australian science and engineering

Dr Adi Paterson drawn to science as a way to improve people’s lives

It was a high school excursion in 1972 that set Adrian “Adi” Paterson on the road to becoming a nuclear scientist. Then a promising Year 11 science student in South Africa, he was taken to visit the SAFARI research reactor near Pretoria.

“I remember that visit very well. Standing on the bridge above the reactor pool and looking down into the core reactor and actually seeing the blue glow, that was the compelling moment when I thought, ‘yes, I have to go into science and engineering,” Dr Paterson said.

While he grew up in a family with a strong science tradition, he also credits an early school text with instilling an interest in science.

“When I went off to my first years of school I was given a book, Science Can Be Fun. It didn’t just talk about the earth and the moon and so on, but about how science was improving lives. The last section was on nuclear power and how it would transform people’s lives,” Dr Paterson said.

Many years later and after a career that has seen many highlights, both in his native South Africa and also in Australia, where he moved in 2008, it is clear the idea of science as something that can and should change people’s lives for the better is something that has guided him throughout his career.

Dr Paterson was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Wollongong (UOW) today (Tuesday 18 April 2017) in recognition of his outstanding scholarship, his significant contribution at both the national and international level, and for the contribution he has made to UOW through his fostering of the relationship between ANSTO and UOW.

While he is best known for his contribution to nuclear science and engineering, he studied chemistry as an undergraduate, and material engineering for his PhD, both from the University of Cape Town. He then joined South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) as a researcher in engineering ceramics, later becoming the organisation’s Executive Vice-President, Technology and Chief Information Officer.

After a stint with South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology he took on the role of General Manager of Business Development and Operations for the Pebble Bed Reactor Company. At the time, the Pebble Bed Reactor project was at the forefront of developing a safer, cleaner nuclear technology that could be adopted in a small-scale and modular fashion, with significant potential for developing countries.

Looking back on his career in South Africa he says the accomplishment he’s most proud of is the role he played in the country’s transition from apartheid into the post-apartheid era.

“I was very involved in creating South Africa’s first National Research Plan and in creating a dedicated Department of Science and Technology,” Dr Paterson said. “The ability to move out of apartheid and to transform into a democratic country was a huge thing. And in the area of science it meant having to build a new system - and one where thousands of other people could make a contribution.”

Following his appointed as Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in March 2009, Dr Paterson has made a valuable contribution to Australian science and technology.

Under his leadership, ANSTO’s Open-pool Australian light water (OPAL) reactor has been turned into the “most productive 20 megawatt reactor in the world today”. Through its production of radioactive isotopes, ANSTO has helped turn Australia into a world leader in diagnostic medicine.

Other accomplishments Dr Paterson cites from his time at ANSTO include taking ownership and operation of the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne; and building an engineering capacity that didn’t exist eight years ago.

During his time as CEO, ANSTO’s relationship with UOW has grown significantly.

“UOW has become ANSTO’s closest academic partner out of all the universities in the Sydney area,” Dr Paterson said.  

“We have a long relationship with UOW and have worked hard to make that more strategic. In that regard it has really helped to have [UOW Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research)] Professor Judy Raper on the ANSTO Board. She has played an important role in developing a portfolio of strategic research areas that we can build on.

“And while the research infrastructure that we can plan together is important, the most important aspects of the relationship are the human links, and the opportunity it has given many young researchers to spend time at ANSTO.”

Dr Paterson said he was surprised and deeply honoured to be presented with an honorary doctorate from UOW.

“It was absolutely unexpected but hugely appreciated,” he said. “I would never have expected to get an honorary doctorate. That the University could see me in that light - I’m completely blown away.”